Newbery-winning author Matt de la Pena accepts a question from a student Tuesday during the second of two assemblies Tuesday at Mariner High School. De la Pena, the author of “Ball Don’t Lie” and “Mexican WhiteBoy” and other novels, won the 2016 Newbery Medal for his book “Last Stop on Market Street.” (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Author an inspiration to Mariner High School students

They filled the bleachers in Mariner High School’s gym. Their chatter was a dull roar — until Matt de la Pena stepped onto the podium.

Behind him was a book-jacket image of “Ball Don’t Lie.” De la Pena’s first young adult novel is about this kid, Sticky, and his girlfriend. It’s about basketball, which was the author’s ticket to a college education. It’s about Sticky’s rough life.

“He’s a kid in the foster care system. My mom was in foster care,” the 43-year-old author told the Mariner crowd, which had quickly turned attentive.

The winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal for his picture book “Last Stop on Market Street,” de la Pena spoke at two Mariner assemblies Tuesday morning. Students were awake. They listened. They were inspired.

“He really touched base here,” said Jordan Davis-Miller, 16, a junior who plays on the Mariner Marauders football team. “He talked about being biracial. It’s not a subject people talk much about,” Davis-Miller said, adding “I’m biracial.”

“It was very inspiring,” said 16-year-old Ali Al-Ameedi, another Mariner junior. He plans to read some of de la Pena’s young adult novels, which also include “Mexican WhiteBoy,” “We Were Here,” “I Will Save You,” “The Living” and “The Hunted.”

The persistence of Mariner teacher-librarian Stephanie Wilson, along with a $1,500 grant from Friends of the Mill Creek Library, helped bring de la Pena to the south Everett school. Wilson saw themes in the author’s fiction and in his personal story that would be relevant to many students. Mariner, she said, is a diverse school where many languages are spoken.

“I wanted to bring a role model here,” Wilson said. After the assemblies, de la Pena took time to sign autographs and books, and to chat with students individually. He later appeared at the University Book Store in Mill Creek.

At Mariner, he shared his background and his literary evolution.

“You cannot be a good writer unless you are a great reader,” de la Pena said during the first assembly. It wasn’t until his sophomore year at the University of the Pacific, which he attended on a full-ride basketball scholarship, that he fell in love with books. He was hooked by “The Color Purple.”

“I’m a mixed person. My dad is Mexican, my mom is white, ” he told the crowd. In school appearances, he has noticed a growing pride among biracial students. “I’m watching this generation own it,” he said.

Growing up in National City, in the San Diego area near the Mexican border, de la Pena said it wasn’t part of his culture for young men to show sensitive emotions. “Reading became my secret place to feel,” he said.

His own life found its way into his fiction. De la Pena once worked in a group home for teens. He borrowed from that experience to write “We Were Here,” about a boy who runs away from a group home.

Wilson said she began applying for grants after reading a powerful 2013 article de la Pena wrote for NPR Books.

Titled “Sometimes the ‘Tough Teen’ is Quietly Writing Stories,” the NPR piece includes de la Pena’s memory of one boy he met during a visit to a Texas school. Labeled a troublemaker by the principal, the student had secretly written a 30-page story that he showed to de la Pena. The boy’s words “were full of heart,” the author wrote in his article.

Sue Ramsey is secretary of Friends of the Mill Creek Library, a nonprofit group that supports Sno-Isle Libraries programs. She said grant requests are often related to teacher training opportunities. “This was for a whole school,” Ramsey said. “We just thought this one was special.”

In January, the American Library Association awarded the 2016 John Newbery Medal to de la Pena’s “Last Stop on Market Street,” an illustrated tale of a boy’s bus ride with his grandmother. The illustrations by Christian Robinson also earned “Last Stop on Market Street” a Caldecott Medal Honor Book award.

In his Newbery Medal acceptance speech, de la Pena talked about learning to love books in college. “Well what if I can nudge a few of these kids toward the magic of books at a younger age?” he said in the speech earlier this year. “What if I can write a story that offers that tough, hooded kid in the back of the auditorium a secret place to feel?”

At Mariner, hundreds of kids heard his story. They listened.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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